How often have you stumbled upon the perfect book at just the perfect time? And how often have you wondered whether the call numbers were more than call numbers, but coordinates, perhaps, meant to ensure that that particular book eventually found its way to you?
Annie Dillard’s An American Childhood—like all the books I’ve read recently—was not sought out as much as discovered. I came upon it at a library book sale, my arms doubling as divination rods as I slipped it into the sack.
I needed it Friend, I really did. Lately, I’ve been feeling tired and old and removed from my own long-forgotten childhood. Which is why when the book came to me I knew to accept it, knew to treat it as a gift from the universe.
Midway through the book, I find that Dillard, too, believe in this synchronicity between literature and life. “Books wandered in and out of my hands,” she writes, and I could barely even finish reading the sentence without thinking: Yes, books do wander, don’t they? Though they never wander aimlessly.
Back in middle school—in the days of checkout cards—half the fun of finding a library book was finding out who read it before you. The checkout card had the power to trace the book’s history, each name above your own serving as an unsolicited recommendation. That checkout card allowed me to imagine all the places that book had ever been, allowed me to see its movement from backpack to nightstand to its safe return in the library drop box. And being able to trace the book’s journey always made me feel closer to the words within, made me better understand just how far it had travelled to find its way to me.
Perhaps I’m making too much of this, Friend, but you know me, I’ve always been a sucker for signs from the universe. Regardless of whether those signs came in the form of names on a checkout card or “she-loves-me, she-loves-me-not” twists of apple stems, always, I do what I think the universe demands.
“Everywhere, things snagged me,” Dillard writes, and again, I think: Yes, it is so easy to get snagged! But in a good way, of course, and in a way that makes me think there are few accidents in this world.
I’m sheepish to admit how often I’ve relied upon a coin flip to make my decisions for me, how often I’ve entrusted my life to Fortune Cookies. But there’s something refreshing about making a decision not based solely on facts and figures, but feelings and instincts, too.
I like to think these so-called “signs of the universe” are simply the reward we receive for noticing. For taking a moment to try to understand the world beyond our inner lives.
This noticing was easier during my own childhood, back when my head wasn’t so clouded by all the usual worries. Back when a summer day started at dawn and stretched till dusk, and most of it was spent outdoors. There was always a fort to be built, always some hole to be dug, and through it all, I would search for signs. The daddy long legs consistently pointed me to the edible berries, while the squirrels—God bless their bushy tails—always steered my shovel clear of the underground electric lines. It was easy to interpret these signs because I was six or seven or eight or nine, and every last thing in the world possessed a life spark. Even the dead things—grass clippings, a rotted limb—always seemed vibrant to me. I wanted to see it all, believing that if I could just stop to notice the world then maybe the world would stop to notice me, too.
As a young girl Dillard, too, was a noticer. “How much noticing could I permit myself without driving myself round the bend?” she asks. “Too much noticing and I was too self-conscious to live…Too little noticing, though…and I would miss the whole show.”
We’re always aiming for that sweet spot, aren’t we, Friend? That spot where we remember we’re alive while forgetting we won’t always be.
Okay, enough with all this. It’s time to get back to noticing.
There are squirrels at the bird-feeder, after all, and I think they’re trying to tell me something.
This morning, as I wrapped up John Hersey’s Hiroshima, H. walked into my office, plucked my copy from my hands, and positioned himself on the rocking chair.
“What’s that?” he asked, pointing to the cover.
“That,” I said, “is an atomic bomb.”
He considered this, studying the mushroom cloud before him, and at last concluded, “Oh, okay,” before abandoning the book for his toys.
And that’s the story of how one little boy learned about another Little Boy.
I admit, I’m always rather shocked, Friend, by the innocuousness of that bomb’s name. As if some PR man deep in the bowels of the Truman administration decided a name like “Little Boy” might soften the blow stateside. Might bolster Americans’ patriotic fervor by reminding us of what we were fighting for--Our little boys! Our little girls!—and help us forget the other boys and girls others fought for far away.
After H. left the room, I found myself rereading the book from the start. Though this time, I focused on Hersey’s depiction of Hiroshima’s children, on the kids who—with the exception of time and place—were not unlike H. himself. Yes, my own son was born 68-years later and 6307 miles away, but that was all the distance between them. He just happened to be born on the right side of the bomb, by which I mean long after it had dropped.
After wrapping up the book for a second time, I was disheartened to find children scattered throughout its pages. Like the story of Mrs. Kamai, just 20 at the time, who held tight to her dead infant daughter for four full days in the hopes her husband might return to say goodbye. And the story of the two young girls found shoulder-deep in the river, their bodies badly burned and absorbing salt water. There are so many other stories—of children who misplaced their mothers on their walks to theirs parks, and mothers who misplaced their children as well. Though of course, nobody “misplaced” anyone; a bomb displaced them all. Still, the result was mostly the same: generations peeled away from one another, everything turned to radiation and dust.
In one particularly troubling passage, Hersey describes the experiences of the children of the Nakamura family who, “in spite of being very sick, were interested in everything that happened.”
Not only were they interested, Hersey explains, but they were “delighted when one of the city’s gas-storage tanks went up in a tremendous burst of flame.”
Once more, I am left thinking about scale, about perspective, and about what a bomb means to a boy 68 years removed from the bomb itself.
For H., the cover photo of the mushroom cloud was not a bomb, but the cover of a book. It didn’t matter what that book was about. For him, a book was a book, not a bomb, and books--he knew--never harmed anyone.
But how might one diffuse a book if one had to?
If the material was simply too painful to read?
I admit it: Hersey’s book is indeed painful to read, but I wouldn’t want to diffuse it. By book’s end, I figure I’m left hurting the way Hersey wants me to hurt—not by drama or sensationalized writing, but a weapon far crueler: factual reporting on the lives of those who were spared.
Of course, when it comes to Hiroshima, I’m not sure anyone was spared. Some people simply survived.
Next time, Friend, I swear to you I’ll read something lighter. How could I not after this?
Having just completed Jesmyn Ward’s Men We Reaped, I am again left thinking about Michael Donald. Not that it takes much to get me there. Michael, who I wrote about throughout Thirteen Loops, is someone I think about often. And not merely his violent death at the hands of a pair of Klansmen, but his life, too, or what I could cobble together about his life with the resources at my disposal. But that was always the problem with my book: no matter who I talked to, or what I read, I could never fully piece together the story of Michael’s life. I learned he was a good son, a fine brother, and a loyal friend, but that was about all I learned. The tragedy beyond the obvious tragedy of Michael Donald’s death is that I was unable to do justice to his life story. Reams of paper have been dedicated to his murder, but his life, at least for me, remains a mystery.
Jesmyn Ward does a better job. In her book—which profiles the lives and deaths of five young African-American men she knew personally—Ward's focus remains on their lives. Her personal connections to the victims allowed her to get close in a way I couldn’t, thereby ensuring that the men she writes about are more than mere mysteries. Yet taken together, these men’s deaths speak to another mystery, one not even Ward can get to the bottom of: “…I wonder at our neighborhood’s silence,” Ward writes early on. “I wonder why silence is the sound of our subsumed rage, our accumulated grief.”
She claims to have written the book to “give voice” to their stories, a rationalization I know well. I, too, have often told skeptical audiences that I—the white guy standing before them—wrote a book about racial violence in order to ensure that the stories of the past are not forgotten. It’s my way, I often prattle, of allowing the present to learn from the past. At the very least, it’s an explanation that helps me sleep at night.
But before I get too self-righteous, I should probably state the obvious: writing about a young man’s murder probably helped my career. It didn’t make me rich or famous, but the book became a line on my CV. A young man was murdered in Mobile, and I added a line on my CV. My intention wasn’t to add a line—it was to write a book—and yet my intention and the outcome only partially synced.
And who can know the full effect of that line? Perhaps it persuaded someone to grant me a job interview, and perhaps that job interview led to a job, which led to health insurance, and a pay check, and all because in 1981 a young man was murdered in Mobile. Or rather, because a young man was murdered in Mobile and then I wrote about his death. Not his life, mind you. His death. I tried to do the former, but I was not a skilled enough writer, and the few facts I had often slipped between my fingers.
Ward never lets facts slip, mainly because the facts often come from her own life. When she writes of her brother’s death—a car crash involving an inebriated white man—she describes the story in full, one far larger than a momentary intersection of lives. Though her brother tried slamming on the brakes, Ward writes that there was “so much momentum, so many bodies and cars and histories and pressures moving all at once, that my brother could not stop his car.”
I’ve read that line several times, and the word that always sticks out is “histories.” There were so many histories. So many stories tied to the story of her brother’s death. So many linkages, so many vantage points, so many ways to take hold of the thread of a single interaction and weave it into the fabric of a long line of racial injustices.
No, I didn’t get drunk and behind the wheel, but I did take another risk. I was a grad student when I began the project, and while sitting on the steps of the University of Alabama’s Gorgas Library, I asked myself, Do you want to be the guy who tells the story or the guy who muffles it by not telling it?
As you know better than anyone, Friend, I’m no victim and I’m certainly no hero. I’m just the guy who, every time he opens Ward’s book, is reminded of what he wanted to write.
Perhaps it’s no coincidence that the day I finished reading Leslie Jamison’s The Empathy Exams we took a trip to a lambing farm. What better way to understand the feelings of others, after all, than to observe the grand drama of life and death played out by a bunch of sheep? Which is what we saw mostly, once we filed out of the van and made the half mile walk to the barn. We paid our admission, then joined the rest of the herd of humans anxious to observe the miracle that is the newborn lamb. And what a miracle it was! Imagine lambs as far as the eye can see, all of whom were knobby-kneed and wobbling. There was the occasional bleating courtesy of the mothers (I actually took an audio recording), but the lambs themselves remained quiet.
One lamb, in particular, remained quiet.
I hadn’t noticed it was stillborn, though this information was whispered to me once we started our trek back to the van. Amid all those miracles (a literal outpouring of lambs!), one miracle quickly turned into a private disaster. But was it really private, I wondered as I buckled my seat belt, just because we human were kept separate behind the glass?
The fact that I did not know what to feel merely confirms much of Jamison’s argument: that empathy does not come naturally or easily. Think about it: How empathetic is it, really, to offer condolences to the survivors of someone who’s passed on? How can a sympathy card ever achieve its aim? And more to the point, why do we rarely go further than a modulated response when we hear of somebody else’s misfortune? We follow protocol, sure, but protocol is not empathy.
But perhaps there is power even in protocol. In her title essay, Jamison writes about serving as a “standardized patient”; that is, an actor describing her maladies for the benefit of burgeoning medical students. She literally adopts a persona and follows a script, all in an effort to test the medical student’s use of protocol. Did they acknowledge her as a human being? Did they voice empathy? By essay’s end, when the playacting turns real—when there are struggles beyond the script—Jamison notes, “Whatever we can’t hold we hang on a hook that will hold it.” Yes. That’s exactly what we do, isn’t it? And when empathy is the product of death, the hook in question often comes in the form of a sympathy card.
Which is perfectly fine, acceptable, and the proper use of protocol. Certainly we have all been the recipients and senders of such cards, and regardless of which end we were on, those cards probably made us feel good.
Of course, I sent no card to the mother sheep, provided her no hook to hang her grief. I had been so overwhelmed by the abundance of fleeced-newborn life, after all, that one death was hardly even a distraction. For me, it was hardly a distraction. But hadn’t the mother sheep—whose tendrils of bloodied umbilical cord still slung from her backside—just watched her world dim indefinably? Hadn’t she just witnessed the thing once inside of her bleat, and then crumble, and then die?
I know what you’re thinking: Who are you, Hollars, to thrust your emotion onto a sheep? I get it. After all, I have watched enough nature documentaries to know that sometimes the antelope falls victim to the lion, that even when the stoic cameraman cuts away, the story is far from finished. For the stillborn lamb in the barn that day, the story is already finished. But not for the mother, who I imagine standing stoically herself—war-torn and ravaged—watching from a distance as the other mothers performed their biological imperatives without complication. Without complication—that is the key.
Have I mentioned the way that barn overflowed with expectant mothers? And not just the barnyard variety. It was as if all the pregnant humans in attendance—my wife included—had made the pilgrimage to get a new perspective, watching intently as those mother sheep birthed without fanfare. Earlier, I wrote of the “miracle” of the births, but if I was to ask a ewe—and she was to respond—I can’t imagine the word “miracle” bleating from her blackened lips. Perhaps it wasn’t a “miracle” for the sheep in question. Perhaps it was merely a Saturday.
Which helps me believe what, exactly? That the stillborn lamb was an equally innocuous experience for the mother sheep? If it’s true, as Jamison writes, that empathy is “realizing no trauma has discrete edges,” then perhaps my inability to map my perceived grief onto the mother sheep is proof of my new understanding on empathy’s limits. I could offer condolences, give that sheep an extra bucket of feed, but probably neither action would heal the wound I do not know she felt.
Ugh. My head is swirling again, and suddenly I find myself feeling too much. Write back soon. Help me make sense of what I think I’m trying to say.